“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
This coming Sunday is “Stir-Up Sunday” when family members and any guests gather in the kitchen to make the Christmas pudding or cake, according to Old English and, subsequently, Southern tradition. The term derives from the opening words of the collect quoted above: “Stir up . . .” from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer for the Sunday before Advent begins.
According to British blogger Marie Rayner, “Christmas pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. This was quite liquidy, would need to be eaten with a spoon like a soup, and would have been a fasting meal during the preparations up to Christmas.” Not until the late 1500s did cooks begin to thicken the pudding with breadcrumbs and eggs, only to have their efforts toward celebratory foods banned by the Puritans in the mid-1660s as too frivolous for a solemn religious season.
Most old recipes for Christmas pudding stipulated that the steamed pudding — or fruitcake — had to be stored for several weeks to allow it to age. Presumably, then, this prayer read at Sunday worship would remind cooks that it was time to begin stirring up, not only their hearts to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, but also the puddings to be ready in time for Christmas.
The custom followed early colonial settlers to American shores with stark regional differences. For example, the Pilgrims considered Christmas Day as just another working day; only Sundays were paramount in solemn religious observances. Virginia colonists, on the other hand, eschewed the austerity imposed on their Massachusetts counterparts. Christmas encompassed a fortnight of celebrations spanning Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night on January 6th. Hence, the introduction of the Christmas pudding to America.
On the traditional “Stir-Up Sunday,” each person in turn stirred the batter. Everyone recited the “Sunday Before Advent” collect, in effect blessing the batter. Besides, the stirrers themselves needed all the stirred-up grace they could get for this hard work! The batter was thick with candied fruits, lemon and orange peels, raisins and currants added to a basic flour and sugar with butter and eggs mix. In most recipes today, the only moisture is vanilla extract, but rum or brandy is de rigueur for a richer flavor. Moreover, liquor helps with the aging.
My mother’s older sister always baked our family’s Christmas fruit cakes. She followed Mama Nedley’s recipe, a dark sweet cake baked slowly in a tube pan. After the cake cooled and she had taken it out of its pan, she pushed a small red apple down the center hole, doused the whole thing with Madeira or Port, and wrapped it in a fresh linen dish towel. She then placed it into a round cake tin and stored it on a top shelf until Christmas afternoon when she served it at tea. I wish she had handed that recipe on to me, but she died with it still in her head, never written down.
I’ve made my fair share of various fruit cakes, but never a steamed plum pudding. I’ve also made fruit cake cookies, a delightful winter afternoon tea treat. This year, I’m thinking of trying Martha Washington’s recipe for her “Great Cake” as I continue to follow some of the old Virginia holiday traditions.
See also Marie Rayner at http://email@example.com